My Review of "Hey Yeah Right Get A Life" by Helen Simpson
I have been boring anyone who will listen with quotes from this book all week. Some very lucky people have even had a photocopy of the odd story thrust upon them with fierce instructions to read immediately. Others are going to find it turning up as a birthday present, house warming present, thanks-for-having-me-for-coffee present or any other lame excuse I can think of to spread the joy of this excellent collection of short stories!
This set of tales focusing on mums in various different scenarios was actually published in 2000, but I've only just discovered it. However, even reading it 16 years later, it is still very resonant and perceptive about the lives of mothers. My youngest has just started school so I am beginning to emerge from the world of nappies, toddlers and weaning- although still rooted firmly enough in the world of sleepless nights and tantrums to not have totally forgotten about the more relentless side of parenting. If I had read this collection even a year ago it might have made me weep with despair but, with a little distance from some of the situations depicted, it had me smiling, snorting, highlighting, rereading and nodding vigorously in vehement recognition and empathy. Don't get me wrong, motherhood is a wonderful gift, an amazing experience, I love my children and count my blessings but....it has been hard, gruelling, challenging and a completely life changing experience which has sometimes been lonely and a little bleak. Simpson acknowledges this continuous conflict felt by every parent and writes about it with perception and wit.
I had four favourite stories. "Lentils and Lilies" shows eighteen year old Jade's perceived view of motherhood. She vows never to "be dead inside" or end up "making rotas and lists and endless arrangements" like her mother who is admired by everyone for achieving such micro management of her family when, in Jade's judgmental eyes, she is merely harassed, nagging and frequently unable to get them to school on time. When Jade accidentally gets involved with helping another stressed mother, she has nothing but contempt and disgust for the woman whose house is "like a propaganda campaign for family values.....a fluttery white suffocation of cliches." Yet I have every confidence Jade will become one such woman - after all, I said the same and look at me now......!
I loved "Cafe Society" and if this book hadn't had been published so long ago I would have suspected Helen Simpson of stalking me, especially as the child even has the same name as mine and mentions the "collective intake of breath as everyone turns to stare" which seems to haunt me everywhere I go! This story described the last nine years of my life. It was so entertaining, so sharp and so true. Two shattered women meet for a coffee but the presence of the toddler "precludes anything much in the way of communication beyond blinking in morse." His behaviour was described with such wit and accuracy - the tiny details sprinkled over the narrative like the cocoa power on your latte -creating a brilliant, vivid image of the scene and conveying character and atmosphere with scant, concise remarks. The internal voices of the two women show a more complex and serious reflection on motherhood which is more thought provoking and sad. They leave in a sudden hurry as you so often have to with small children resolving "never again," having exchanged "less than 200 words inside this hour."
In "Hey Yeah Right Get A Life" and "Hurrah for the Holidays" we meet Dorrie whose initial enthusiasm for motherhood is wearing thin as her youngest child begins to leave the toddler years behind and Dorrie is forced to confront what is left of her and her life: "She had broken herself into pieces like a biscuit and was now scattered all over the place." She does nothing for herself, through her "constant usefulness to others she has herself become a big fat zero". Dorrie doesn't know how to put herself first as she feels nothing but guilt if she is not busy with tasks for the family all the time. But at the same time she exhausted and consumed with a sense of inferiority and failure after years of dealing with "tempestuous egomaniacal little people." These stories are perhaps the saddest and most poignant in the collection. Her apathy and listlessness generates huge empathy from the reader as she is a caring, loving, indulgent mother who is bullied by her husband. Simpson writes with sensitivity about Dorrie's depressing plight yet the writing remains full of humour and dry, sardonic comments which will bring a broad smile to your face.
I liked the recurrent theme of Doctors and their apathy for female patients; their sense of disinterest in another neurotic mother. They have the skill to silence a woman before she makes them feel obliged to put her on prozac. Another example of Simpson's skilled observation and shrewd insight.
This collection of stories was so enjoyable - I did not find it caustic or cliched but realistic, authentic and reflective. Simpson's writing is intelligent and accomplished. She is highly skilled at creating characters quickly and adeptly, placing the reader firmly in the centre of a scene quickly and effortlessly. These stories and each of the women will stay with me. I have filled pages of a notebook with quotes that I loved and that meant something more personal to me.
There's a lot to be said for the fact that every book has a totally different impact on each individual. Certain books definitely affect you differently depending on whether you are on holiday, over-worked, emotional, ecstatic or at a particular life stage. I think this is one of these books and I appreciate that it won't appeal to every parent or reader however hard I insist, but I would encourage you to give it a go. It's intelligent, pertinent and funny. Simpson is a gifted observer of people and life. I am off to discover more of her books.
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